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Jun Mizutani Discusses Olympics, Harimoto, Ito, and More

Jun Mizutani recently sat down with a Japanese table tennis reporter to discuss the Tokyo Olympics, the pandemic, Tomokazu Harimoto, playing doubles with Koki Niwa as two lefties, playing doubles with Mima Ito, and life after table tennis. Edges and Nets has provided an English translation below. All photos in this post are taken from the original website of the interview.

Please note that this translation was done via Google Translate with corrections for obvious mis-translations of table tennis terms; no Japanese speakers were involved. Translating Japanese pronouns into English gives Google Translate difficulties, and we did our best to correct the pronoun mistranslations to match the context, but there may still be errors.

On the Pandemic

First of all, I would like you to look back on the 2020-21 season. I think it was a difficult situation due to the pandemic, but what kind of year was it?

Mizutani: There were few matches, so I couldn’t confirm my condition. The only thing that was big was that the T-League was held for one season. Unfortunately, Kinoshita Meister Tokyo [Mizutani’s team] couldn’t achieve the third straight victory, but as an individual, I was able to win 13 singles, so I think it wasn’t bad.

How would you rate your performance on a scale to 100?

Around 70 points? I think there is still room for growth.

Please tell us your feelings when the Tokyo Olympics were postponed, which should have ended before the opening of the T-League last year.

In many ways, I had the feeling that it was “quite difficult.” All domestic and international games are gone, and I don’t know when I can play. There were various restrictions on practicing. I had never had such an experience, so I had a really hard time.

I think it was difficult to maintain motivation.

That’s right. Even though I thought “I have to do my best for the Olympics!”, I sometimes felt depressed, “I wonder if it will be held …”. There was a wave in my feelings. But now that the event is approaching and it’s becoming more and more realistic, my motivation is very high.

A the moment when the Olympics were postponed, Mizutani’s face came to my mind first. “Is it okay?” “What should I do?”

If it were true, I might have retired around August last year (laughs). Now that I am confident that I can still do it, I think I can do my best until next year even if it is postponed again.

I was relieved to hear that. Is there any part of the condition that has improved over the past year that lead to your current confidence?

Is it a place where you can “return to the old days”? Recently, I’ve returned to the feeling I had when I was a high school student or college student who was playing table tennis and was crazy about it.

Did you have any chance [to return to the old days of being passionate]?

I’m sure it’s because I feel that the rest of my competitive life is short. I’ve always liked table tennis, but I can’t do it anymore. Because of that kind of loneliness, I think I can practice with a lot of strength like I used to.

Does the fact that you have more time to think about table tennis and look back at the pandemic also have an effect?

I think it is. On the other hand, when I couldn’t play table tennis, I tried some things, “let’s do something different.” But in the end, none of them lasted long. So when I practiced for the first time in a while, I thought, “Oh, I like table tennis after all.” I think that the feeling of “I like table tennis” that I felt anew is connected to my current self.

By the way, what is the “something different” that you tried?

First of all, I played a game (laughs).


Oh, is it “Clash Royale” that was showing off his skills on TV programs?

You know it well (laughs). I also held a tournament myself. I often talk about games with Harimoto in the bath [possible alternate translation: locker room?]. I talk about private things that have nothing to do with table tennis, the Olympics, Chinese players, etc., but 50% talk about games.

On Tomokazu Harimoto

That’s right. Now that you mentioned Mr. Harimoto, how do you see his growth as a player?

It seems that he is gradually feeling a sense of responsibility. Even in recent practice, after everyone finished the curriculum, they practiced independently for another hour. I am also working hard on training. Harimoto is already in the third year of high school. I think this is a time when one can grow up as a table tennis player and as a person, so I feel that he is facing table tennis more firmly than ever before.

Harimoto has sometimes raised mental control as an issue, but do you have the impression that he is also doing well in mental control?

I think he’s done very well since the beginning of this year. It was the same not only in the national team but also in the T-League, but last year he was disappointed when he lost the game, and he felt regret. He was more depressed than the team, he was more depressed about what he lost, and he wasn’t completely blown away. However, this hasn’t happened since the beginning of this year, and he’s in very good shape. He also won the singles at the international tournament held in Qatar in March, and I feel that he is growing steadily.

What do you feel is growing in his play?

He’s back to the aggressive play style he used to have. When Harimoto is off, his play becomes defensive, and in many cases he is attacked by his opponent and cannot defend himself. But lately, I can see that he is taking advantage of that reflection and facing the game with the intention of aggressively attacking himself.

On Koki Niwa and Playing Doubles Together

The mental and play aspects are definitely evolving, aren’t they? Please tell us your impression of another national team member, Koki Niwa.

The approach to table tennis has changed. I think Niwa has a “genius skin” in terms of play, or a play style that doesn’t look like a hard worker, but in practice it’s moving tremendously. I wondered if that movement would really be used in games. It’s also interesting to practice mainly on the basics, even though you play so messed up in a match.

Niwa is a genius player, I was a little surprised that the main practice was basic practice.

I don’t think that was the case in the past. Immediately before the last Rio Olympics, he was so stressed that he couldn’t practice for weeks, and sometimes he escaped from reality. But this time, he’s doing basic practice every day, so I’m glad it looks okay. He’s my doubles partner, but he’s a player who has his own world, so I think I have to read what he’s thinking.

Do you have any concerns that you are both left-handed for doubles?

Certainly, the pair of two left-handed players has hardly been seen in the world for the past 15 years. There was also a talk that either I or Niwa should team up with Harimoto because it is difficult to move. However, Harimoto still wants to be an “ace player” (a player who plays two games in singles), so naturally the team took on its current form [where Niwa and Mizutani are paired]. I have been practicing with Niwa quite a bit, and every time I do it, I make new discoveries and understand our weaknesses, so I feel that I am growing step by step despite the difficulties.

Because the hard part is, how do I move?

That’s right. Everything is difficult, both after serving and after receiving.

Still, are there upsides as well?

There is definitely. The merit of teaming up two left-handed players is that both can provide the same service as in singles, and it is possible to attack with a chiquita even in receive. I think it will give us a great advantage in that respect. Also, from the opponent’s point of view, I think it’s definitely their first time to play against a lefty/lefty pair. I have no experience either.

Certainly, you can play a match against an opponent who has never played against a lefty/lefty pair while always holding an advantage.

There is definitely an advantage in terms of feelings. However, if you do it properly, you won’t win 100%. If you can play normally and win, there would be more lefty/lefty pairs. So our strategy is not to play a normal doubles match, but to use a lot of tricky play to confuse our opponents. So I think you’ll feel like you’re watching a completely different competition.

On Mima Ito

You will also participate in the Tokyo Olympics in mixed doubles. It’s been about two years since you made a pair with Ito from the Korea Open held in July 2019. Please tell us your impression of Ito again.

When I first formed the pair, I was confused by the variety of Mima Ito’s plays. Whether it’s service or receive, it’s a new technique I’ve never seen, I take a course, and the returned ball is also unique, so I couldn’t handle it easily. Even so, the pairing is getting better as the number of games increases, and I feel that the combination is getting better even in practice.

Ito is from the same club (Toyota Town Table Tennis Sports Boy Scouts), and she has a well-known relationship [with Mizutani]. Since she was little, she was called “Falcon” (laughs).

I’m abandoning it now (laughs).

You’re fighting in doubles with Ito, but is your impression different from what it used to be?

I have strong memories of when she was in kindergarten, so there may be parts where I can interact with her as she were in the past.

Is it like a cute little sister?

It really feels like that. However, the moment I stand in front of the table tennis table, I become the face of a top athlete representing Japan. I also look at it with respect.

On His Chance Of Winning Gold in Mixed Doubles

About a year ago, it was said that in mixed doubles you and Ito had a 65-75% chance at medaling and a 20% chance at gold. Has that percentage changed?

We are second in the mixed doubles world rankings, so we will probably be the second seed. In that case, I think that the possibility of medals has increased to about 70-80% because we will not hit the Chinese pair [Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin] until the finals. The gold medal is also adjusted very nicely, so it’s about 30%.

It indeed has gone up a lot. I think the biggest rival is China’s Xu Xin & Liu Shiwen pair, but looking at the competition results so far, it is a painful result without a victory in four matches.

There is not much difference in ability among us, and I think that we are in a position to win, so I think that the rest is a big part of my feelings. Looking back, in the 2019 Grand Final final, while leading the set count 2-0, we lost three games at once and lost the matches. As I continued to lose, I started to think “I want to win” and “I think I can win” during the match, and I felt less motivated to go, or I was a little defensive. If I can get rid of that, I think the probability of winning will increase.

Is there anything you are working on specifically?

Recently, I’ve been practicing a reverse horizontal rotation serve called YG (Young Generation) service. I don’t usually use it a lot in games, but there are many players who have trouble with YG service regardless of gender. That’s why I want to use it as a big weapon at the Olympics.

Certainly, Mizutani has an image that YG service will be released at this moment.

I think so. The reason why I haven’t used it so much is that the YG service is a very complicated rotation, so the returned ball is also complicated. In that case, it would be difficult for Mima Ito to hit the third ball, so it was a big risk to put it out many times. But on the contrary, if you master it, it will definitely become a big weapon, so I am currently practicing hard. Already, Mima Ito’s trust in hitting the third ball firmly even for complicated receives has increased considerably.

Other rivals include Taiwan’s Lin Yun-ju & Cheng I-Ching and South Korea’s Lee Sang-su & Jeon Ji-hee. What is your impression of them?

I’ve been able to win the Taiwanese pair without much effort, so I think it’s a great match. However, I lost to the Korean pair in the semi-finals of the Qatar Open in March. As for the cause of defeat, there are many patterns in which male players are left-handed and female players are right-handed in pairs from other countries, but the Korean pair is the opposite and a little special. That’s why I was confused by the return ball, which has a different nature than before. It didn’t mesh well from beginning to end.

I was watching the game, but I had the impression that you couldn’t break the bad momentum.

That’s right. My play was also really bad. But I’m sure I’ll be able to play well at the Olympics, and I don’t think we’ll get similar results.

On the Tokyo Olympics and Beyond

However, what I am really worried about is the condition of Mizutani’s eyes. Recently, I think some people have said that “the naked eye is better”, but what is your current state?

I’ve been practicing with the naked eye for a long time now, and I feel that it’s a little better than it used to be. For the time being, new sunglasses will arrive, so I haven’t decided which way to go. We plan to make a decision after previewing the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, which is the venue for the match.

I just pray that you will be in the best condition. The opening of the Tokyo Olympics is approaching, but what is the position of Mizutani in this tournament, which will be your fourth appearance?

I think it’s my first and last chance to win a gold medal. The next Paris tournament will be difficult due to age, and this time it will be held in Tokyo, so I would like to prepare so that I can demonstrate all my abilities.

You’ve always been told that you’ll retire after the Olympics, but do you still feel that way?

Yes. However, I think that I will retire from the international competition, but I wonder if I will continue to play table tennis … It may be quite ambiguous (laughs).

I’m getting ahead of myself, but what do you want to do other than table tennis after the Olympics?

That’s not the case at all. I also like soccer and baseball, so I have a desire to try it, but I’m tired of it. There is no such thing as “I want to continue doing this!”

It’s strange that people who have been playing table tennis for such a long time get bored. How about being a commentator? I think you commentated on the finals at this year’s All Japan Championships.

If I get an offer, I would like to try it. It feels like “I wish I could.”

Finally, please share with us your enthusiasm for the Tokyo Olympics.

As a culmination of myself, I would like to express all of my 27 years of competitive life in performance. The goal is to play so far away from humans that the viewer thinks “I can never imitate that myself”, so please take a look.

By the way, do you not wear underwear at this tournament as well?

Naturally. Needless to say.

If you change it suddenly, the condition will go crazy. Thank you for this time. I’m looking forward to your success!

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Power Ranking the Olympic Singles Gold Medal Contenders

This post is the first in a series of previews on the Tokyo Olympics. Read all our Olympic coverage here.

With the conclusion of the Chinese Olympic Scrimmages and less than fifty days to go, Olympic season is in full swing. While the Bundesliga finals, which will feature the likes of Timo Boll and Patrick Franziska, are scheduled to happen this weekend, there are arguably no more remaining high-profile events involving major Olympic gold medal contenders. This brings us to the question, exactly who can be classified as a gold medal contender?

In this post, we take a look at who is a contender and who is a pretender for the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. We then rank the contenders of both genders in order of likelihood of winning gold in Tokyo. The rankings contain a certain amount of subjectivity, but hopefully they are at least more consistent and meaningful than ITTF’s FIFA-style “player ratings“.

Sorting Out Contenders and Pretenders

The road to gold runs through China, so to begin let us take a look at how the top seeds have fared against the Chinese National Team (CNT) over the last couple of years.

Men’s Singles

The table below shows the record of the top eleven seeds in the men’s singles events. The first column indicates the name of the player, the second column indicates his seed at the Olympics, the third column indicates his record against Ma Long (the second seed), the third column indicates his record against Fan Zhendong (the top seed), the fourth column indicates his/her record against the other four highest-ranked players on the CNT (Xu Xin, Lin Gaoyuan, Liang Jingkun, and Wang Chuqin), and the fifth column indicates the total number of wins he has recorded against any of these six members of the CNT.

We only consider four out-of-seven ITTF-sanctioned matches (unfortunately, WTT is looking to make three-out-of-fives the new normal) that happened since 2018 at the earliest. Moreover, we do not consider T2 results, as the rules are an absolute gimmick, and the top Chinese players of both genders possibly underperformed as a result. While this misses out on some key matches like Timo Boll’s 2017 renaissance, matches from four years ago arguably have very little predictive value for matches today. After all, Ding Ning was World Champion in 2017, and now she is retiring.

NameSeedRecord vs Ma LongRecord vs Fan ZhendongRecord vs Rest of CNTTotal Wins vs CNT
Fan Zhendong14-3N/A13-517
Ma Long2N/A3-412-415
Tomokazu Harimoto32-20-32-114
Hugo Calderano40-11-51-42
Lin Yun-Ju51-10-52-73
Mattias Falck60-20-11-51
Dimitrij Ovtcharov70-41-00-51
Timo Boll80-30-60-30
Jang Woojin90-00-44-44
Jeoung Youngsik100-31-30-51
Liam Pitchford111-00-11-22
Record of top seeds in Men’s Singles against CNT

As expected, we see that the Chinese National Team is heads and shoulders above the international competition. No international player has anything close to a winning record against the CNT, and Ma and Fan have by far the most wins against the CNT despite having the handicap of not being able to play against themselves.

We look at the total number of wins that a player has against the CNT as opposed to the win percentage. The idea is that players like Harimoto should not be penalized for making it far enough in a tournament to frequently face off against a Chinese player and lose.

We classify anyone who has not recorded more than two wins over a Chinese player over the last two years as a pretender. After all, if a player could only beat a Chinese player twice over three years, possibly when said Chinese player may have been nursing an injury, out of focus, or experimenting, what are the odds that he can beat them twice in the same tournament at which the Chinese will be at peak performance?

Thus, we label Calderano, Falck, Ovtcharov, Boll, Jeoung, Pitchford, and all the even lower seeds (no lower seed has more than one win against the CNT) as pretenders. While they are strong contenders for bronze and may even make the finals, which Falck achieved in the 2019 World Championships, they will really need all the stars to align and to have the tournament of their lives to win gold.

Women’s Singles

Let’s now take a look at a similar table for the top ten seeds of the women’s singles event. The fourth column in this table will refer to a player’s record against Liu Shiwen, Ding Ning, Wang Manyu, and Zhu Yuling over the last three years.

NameSeedRecord vs Sun YingshaRecord vs Chen MengRecord vs Rest of CNTTotal Wins vs CNT
Chen Meng13-1N/A24-827
Sun Yingsha2N/A1-36-107
Mima Ito31-40-38-89
Cheng I-Ching41-10-20-71
Kasumi Ishikawa51-61-20-82
Feng Tianwei60-11-20-61
Jeon Jihee70-30-10-20
Doo Hoi Kem80-20-20-20
Adriana Diaz90-10-00-10
Sofia Polcanova100-10-10-30
Record of top seeds in Women’s Singles against CNT

When looking at how many wins each player has scored against the CNT over the last three years, it is quite clear that Chen Meng, Sun Yingsha, and Mima Ito are all contenders and the rest of the field consists of pretenders. Although someone like Kasumi Ishikawa or Jeon Jihee may hope to steal a match from Ito and claim bronze, it is difficult to envision anyone outside of Chen, Sun, or Ito taking gold.

Power Ranking the Contenders

Now that we’ve sorted out the pretenders from the contenders using our rough proxy of wins against the CNT, it’s time to rank the contenders in order of likelihood of winning gold.

A common saying among coaches is that there are four pillars of table tennis: technical, physical, tactical, and psychological. While the initial reaction of many people is to focus on the technical aspect of table tennis, players like Liu Shiwen have emphasized the importance of the psychological aspect of table tennis. While we will look at more technical details in future posts, in this ranking we will lean more heavily into the role of amateur psychologist.

8) Lin Yun-Ju

The table shown above undersells Lin a bit, as they don’t count T2 matches, in which Lin beat Lin Gaoyuan, Ma Long and Fan Zhendong. The rules were clearly designed to increase the variance in outcomes and make it easier to pull off upsets, but at the end of the day, Lin has shown the ability to defeat Ma Long and Fan Zhendong in the same (watered-down) tournament, which makes him a gold medal contender.

Lin’s chiquita is arguably the best in the game, giving him the ability to play an aggressive style and launch the opening attack in the point, even when the opponent serves. However, his relative lack of strength and power makes his attacks less intimidating, as Ovtcharov was all too happy to concede the opening attack in his win over Lin at WTT Doha last March.

Lin spent the last Fall training in China with the Chinese National Team. There are two ways to read this. On the one hand, training with the top players and coaches in the world in principle should make him an even bigger threat to China.

On the other hand, China is notoriously secretive and competitive and won’t even share its rubbers with the world. The chances that they shared novel and meaningful insights with Lin are slim. Moreover, in 2017, China allegedly banned Hirano and Ishikawa from playing in the super league because they were such a big threat. If China really feared Lin as a serious contender, would they let him in to train with them right before the Olympics? Lin may surprise us all and pull off the two upsets that he needs, but from the looks of it, China is fairly confident that will not be the case.

7) Jang Woojin

Due to his disappointing first-round loss to Ruwen Filus at WTT Doha, Jang failed to break into the top eight seeds for the Tokyo Olympics. As a result, Jang can potentially run into a top seed as early as the round of 16.

Harimoto will certainly not want to see Jang in the round of 16, as the two exchanged narrow wins in a pair of seven-game thrillers in the ITTF Finals and World Cup last Fall. As Jang is tied with Harimoto on the leaderboard for most wins against the Chinese National Team over the last three years (granted, Harimoto and Lin both have more wins than Jang if you include three-out-of-five and T2 matches), Fan and Ma would likely prefer to see Jang deeper into the tournament as well.

Intuitively speaking, Jang’s willingness to step around and go for big forehands, even if it means risking getting burned on the wide-open forehand, can make his game more high-variance. This opens him up to a potential early-round exit, but it also tilts the odds further in his favor when playing against someone stronger than him such as Fan or Ma.

Jang’s low seed may end up being a blessing in disguise, as it may be easier to play the Chinese players earlier in the event as they may still be shaking off the Olympic jitters and getting used to the environment. Furthermore, a round-of-16 exit is far more stressful and disappointing for a Chinese player than a semi-final exit. If Jang can build an early 2-1 lead against Fan, can his aggressive play and the situational pressure get into Fan’s head?

Korea has consistently challenged China in the men’s singles event over the last several decades, and Korean national team coaches Ryu Seungmin and Kim Taeksoo won’t be intimidated by China. Jang has the surrounding coaching and training infrastructure to beat China. If he gets hot at the tournament, he may very well end up pulling off the two upsets that he needs to win gold.

6) Tomokazu Harimoto

5) Mima Ito

Tomokazu Harimoto and Mima Ito certainly have the respect and fear of the Chinese National Team. In an interview in 2019, Coach Liu Guoliang has remarked that what makes both of them dangerous is their fearlessness and willingness to try out new things.

Stylistically, both of them have zigged while the rest of the field has zagged. Partially due to his young age, Harimoto has opted to essentially never back off from the table or take a backstroke and to instead win points by out-pacing the Chinese with quick off-the-table bounces. Meanwhile, Mima Ito has developed arguably the most iconic serves in the game today (sorry Dima), and instead of attempting the hopeless task of defeating the Chinese in long rallies, she has directed her focus towards winning the point on her first three shots.

While it is still unclear how many fans will be able to attend the Olympics, the home crowd in Tokyo will surely give Harimoto and Ito at least some boost. As young underdogs, Harimoto and Ito will almost certainly face less pressure than their Chinese counterparts as well. Both players are clearly serious threats to beat the Chinese, but which one is more likely to win gold?

Ito probably has better chances of winning gold due to her lack of competition among non-Chinese women. While it’s possible that Ito is upset before she reaches the semi-finals, unlike Harimoto she does not need to worry about playing a Jang Woojin in the round of 16 or a Lin Yun-Ju in the quarter-finals. Virtually all the top non-Chinese stars played at WTT Doha in March, and Ito won both the Contender and Star Contender events quite handily. Meanwhile, Harimoto was upset by Ovtcharov in the Contender event before bouncing back to win the Star Contender event.

However, assuming both players reach the semi-finals, it is debatable who would fare better against the Chinese players. Ito has a significantly better record against the CNT than Harimoto does. She also apparently claimed that she has figured out how to beat Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha, but her prior record against them is even worse than Harimoto’s record against Ma Long and Fan Zhendong.

In fact, the table above also slightly sells Harimoto short. He has a three-out-of-five win against Fan under his belt, and he was a blown 3-1 lead from defeating Ma at the 2020 World Cup in China despite having to go through onerous quarantine during which he was not allowed to play.

If we assume both players have roughly similar chances against the Chinese, then Ito edges out Harimoto in our power rankings. Harimoto carries a significantly bigger risk than Ito of not making the semi-finals, which in turn dampens his chances at winning gold.

4) Sun Yingsha

As is usually the case, the heaviest favorites for gold are all Chinese. While Ma Long vs Fan Zhendong is one of the more interesting table tennis debates these days, Chen Meng has performed heads and shoulders above the competition over the last few years. Hence, Chen takes the number one spot in our power rankings and Ma and Fan take the next two spots.

Although Sun has a worse record against the CNT than Ito over the last several years, Sun has a 4-1 head-to-head record against Ito, which becomes 6-1 when considering T2 and three-out-of-fives. Sun would be the favorite in a match-up against Ito, giving her the number four spot in the power rankings.

3) Fan Zhendong

2) Ma Long

With Sun Yingsha slotted in at fourth and Chen Meng locked in at first, the second and third spot in the power rankings go to Fan Zhendong and Ma Long. The big debate is, who would you pick between Ma and Fan to win gold in Tokyo?

Fan Zhendong has a winning head-to-head record over Ma Long since 2018, a better record against the Chinese National Team, and a higher world rank. Fan looked better than Ma at the Chinese Olympic Scrimmage. Ma will turn 33 at the end of the year, while most Chinese players retire by the age of 30.

However, Ma is arguably the greatest player of all time. Ma has won the last three World Championships, including in 2019 when he was coming off an injury and playing as a lower seed, and the 2016 Olympics. Even if he doesn’t look his best during scrimmages, which are the epitome of unimportant low-stakes matches, he has earned the benefit of the doubt that he will get it together when the matches really matter.

Moreover, as a result of Ma’s dominance over the last half-decade, Fan has zero championship experience in top-tier events. Fan may look better physically and technically, but Ma undoubtedly has the mental edge going into Tokyo.

Father Time catches up with everyone eventually, and Ma may end up looking extremely vulnerable a la Zhang Jike in 2016. However, until Ma loses in a World Championship or Olympic match, betting against him in a top-tier event is a dangerous game. Hence, he lands just above Fan in the power rankings.

1) Chen Meng

Before her loss to Wang Manyu in the finals of the second leg of the Olympic Scrimmage, Chen Meng was virtually untouchable for more than a year. She won the first leg of the Olympic Scrimmage earlier in May and won all her matches (not counting exhibitions like WTT Macao) in 2020, sweeping through World Cup, Grand Finals, All China National Championships in the Fall and the German Open and Qatar Open before the pandemic. She has a favorable head-to-head record against Sun and Ito, and since 2018 she has recorded more wins against the Chinese National Team in international competition than Ito and Sun combined.

Chen walks into Tokyo as the clear-cut favorite to win gold in the women’s singles event over Sun, Ito, and arguably the entire field combined. Neither Ma Long nor Fan Zhendong can claim such odds, so Chen sits atop the power rankings at number 1.

Update: Photos from the Chinese National Team Training Hall have been released, including their signature posters of their key rivals divided into tiers:

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Identifying The Magnus Effect In Table Tennis

As we all wait for the elite professional table tennis scene to return in early May, in today’s post we will look at one of the more fundamental physical phenomena in table tennis that not all viewers are aware of: the Magnus Effect.

The Magnus Effect is a physical phenomenon that explains how the spin of a ball modifies its trajectory while the ball is in the air. Unlike other aspects of table tennis mechanics, the Magnus Effect is not the result of gravity and friction, forces that we are familiar with and experience every day, but the result of fluid dynamics. This makes it difficult to visualize and form an intuitive understanding of the Magnus Effect.

However, although it is difficult to create an intuition for the cause of the Magnus Effect, once you understand its results (which are extremely simple), then you can see how the Magnus Effect is present in several common table tennis contexts.

What is the Magnus Effect?

A very non-rigorous explanation of the Magnus Effect (courtesy of Wikipedia) is as follows. When a spinning ball moves through a fluid (such as air), the ball “pushes” the air in one direction, and as a result of Newton’s Third Law (every action has an equal and opposite reaction), the air pushes back on the ball in the opposite direction. The visualization below shows a ball with topspin traveling to the right, which kicks up the air behinds it. As a result, the air exerts a reactive downward force on the ball.

If this is difficult to form an intuition around, that is fine; from a table tennis perspective what matters is not the cause but the effect of the Magnus Effect. The most important takeaway is that the Magnus Effect means that the spin of the ball affects its trajectory while the ball is still in the air and before it even hits the table.

Visualization of the airflow that causes the Magnus Effect

What makes the Magnus Effect counterintuitive is that for topspin and underspin, the direction of the force is opposite of what we usually associate for each spin. When the ball bounces on the table or off the raquet, we typically associate a topspin ball with jumping upward and forward (e.g. for a kicker serve) and an underspin ball will jump downward and backward (e.g. Ma Lin’s famous ghost serve).

However, by contrast, the Magnus Effect exerts a downward force (and a smaller backward force when the ball is falling) on topspin balls and an upward force (and a smaller forward force when the ball is falling) on underspin balls. We can better visualize both the direction of the Magnus Effect and how strongly it can influence the ball’s trajectory in the below video, where a basketball falling downward with backspin floats very far forward. If you tilt your neck sideways while watching the video, then you can see how a ball with backspin traveling horizontally across a table will feel an upward force due to the Magnus Effect (of course, in a table tennis scenario, this force is still weaker than gravity, so the ball still falls down onto the table).

Identifying the Magnus Effect in Table Tennis

At its essence, the Magnus Effect may be slightly counterintuitive but it is extremely simple: topspin is dragged down when the ball is in the air, and underspin is lifted up when the ball is in the air. We look at its consequences in two common scenarios: the fast topspin rally and the counter against a spinny opening loop.

The Magnus Effect In Fast Topspin Rallies

One of the biggest results of the Magnus Effect is that it is more desirable to add topspin to loops regardless of the speed. Spin vs speed is often viewed as a tradeoff where one must lose one to gain the other, which can be the case when the amount of spin/speed generated is limited by the player’s physical abilities. However, in the certain in-game contexts, increasing topspin may actually enable more speed. Watch the following winner by Ding Ning below.

The radar on the net measures the speed of the winner to be a fast 70 km/hr, but notice how the ball actually does not bounce that deep on the table. It only bounces roughly at the halfway point between the edge and the net both on Ding’s game-winner and the shot immediately before that. This is because the ball is loaded with spin (watch the ball roll on the floor when the point ends), so a heavy Magnus force drags the ball down faster. Hence, Ding Ning could have hit even faster, and the ball would still have landed within the table.

In general, adding more topspin counterintuitively makes the ball land shallower due to the Magnus Effect. This gives players a wider margin of error to hit the ball hard and fast without having to worry about it going off the table. As long as the player brushes the ball sufficiently and adds enough spin, the player can hit as hard as he or she wants and the ball will still drop down onto the table because of the increased Magnus force.

Although it is usually desirable to land serves, pushes, and opening deep onto the table, in the fast rally the ball is so fast and the opponent has so little time to react that the shallow depth appears not to matter much anyway. Moreover, with the heavy amount of spin involved and high downward velocity due to the Magnus Effect, the ball gets a serious kick once it bounces off the table. Looking at the slow-motion replay you can see how much pressure Ding Ning applies to Mima Ito during that point. On the first block, the ball is already up to near her face-level (granted, Mima Ito is short and also bending down). On the second shot, Ito is a bit late, and the ball jumps over her paddle.

Leveraging the Magnus Effect Against Slow Spinny Loops

Many amateur players have had the experience where, even if an opening loop is slow, if it is spinny it can often be quite challenging to block because the spin causes the ball to bounce off the racquet so that it flies off the edge of the table. One solution is to close the racquet and essentially hit the ball downward in order to counter the heavy topspin..

Alternatively, a player can simply add his or her own topspin to the ball, so even if the ball bounces off the racquet at a higher angle than expected, the Magnus Effect will forgive minor errors and drag the ball down. In the clip below, Ma Long opens his angle and counters Fan Zhendong’s slow spinny opening with a heavy topspin counter in which his racquet goes almost straight up instead of down or even forward.

Bonus: Around-the-net Shots

The Magnus Effect carries the most in-game implication for top-spin balls and topspin is usually the heaviest spin in the match, but it also affects heavy underspin and sidespin balls. For underspin balls, the Magnus Effect gives heavy chops their floating effect. While the distances involved in table tennis are too small for us to see some of the extreme bends that we do in soccer/football on sidespin balls, the curve induced by the Magnus Effect can clearly be seen in some of the more ambitious around-the-net shots that Youtube stars like Adam Bobrow take.

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and follow Edges and Nets on Facebook , Instagram, and Twitter to stay updated.

Unfortunately, ITTF has killed ITTV, meaning that past matches are no longer publicly available to watch. Hence, no analysis blog posts are scheduled for the immediate future. You can check out past analysis posts here.

Mima Ito Discusses WTT Doha and Tokyo Olympics

Mima Ito appears to have recently created a stir among Chinese media by declaring to Japanese media that she has figured out how to beat potential Olympic opponents Chen Meng and Sun Yingsha. The timing comes right after China’s National Games Qualifier tournament. However, Chen did not participate in the event, and Sun only played doubles. Chinese fans are left guessing whether Ito is really onto something, or whether she is participating in so-called psychological warfare.

Note: we were unable to obtain the original source of the Japanese interview and are only relaying the reaction by Chinese media. If someone could share the original interview, it would be greatly appreciated.

Ito seems to be guessing that China will send Chen and Sun to play the singles event in Tokyo, but China has not yet released its roster. Based on recent comments made by coach Li Sun, there is speculation that China will instead send Chen and reigning World Champion Liu Shiwen, who appears to have fully recovered from the elbow injury that sidelined her during the second half of 2020, to play in the singles event.

At this point, interpreting Ito’s statement is like reading tea leaves, but is it possible that she is trying to bait China into not sending Sun, who is 6-1 against Ito since 2018?

Ito also recently wrote a brief article on some of her thoughts on her performance at WTT Doha. We produce a rough English translation below. Editor notes are in italics.

In WTT Doha in March, I won the single’s champion in two events (i.e. WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender). This tournament is different from previous ones, as the matches were only best three out of five until the quarter-finals. Because I don’t know what would happen under this format, I was very cautious throughout the tournament. Once I reached the stage where it was best four out of seven, I instantly felt relieved and could play comfortably.

Even though I wasn’t immediately playing my best starting from my first match (Ito squeaked by Britt Eerland 3-2 in her first match), my goal every day was simply to play to the level that I know I am capable of, and I slowly began to enjoy it. I feel that whether it is in table tennis technique or my mental game, I have become stronger in many aspects.

Different from last year’s world tour, WTT uses many different types of lighting, so the whole arena feels like a movie theatre. It made me feel very glamorous. Also different from the usual tournaments is that the barriers were very low, so it’s really easy to hit the ball outside of the playing area. The athletes also had to pick up the balls. Whenever I did this, I would start thinking, “if I take this path and walk around this way, I can get to the ball faster.” I would think about these things while playing the tournament.

Throughout these two competitions, I felt that winning the point during the first three shots was my main playing style (shameless plug: check out a similar observation Edges and Nets made in our finals analysis). When I win points through the serve and receive, I play with more excitement (unsure if this is the correct term. The original Japanese word appears to be ノリノリ).

I started gaining confidence in my serve when I won the German Open in March 2015, where I beat very high-ranked players (Ito beat Feng Tianwei, who was ranked number four at the time). I felt that my serves were very good, which made it difficult for my opponents to play aggressively.

At the time, I felt that as long as I could get the two points on my serves, it was enough. However, as I started playing these players more often, even if I won both my points on the serve, I would just return two points back to them on the serve return. Hence, I think both my serve and serve return need improvement.

I need to think carefully and come to a decision on whether to play international tournaments before the Olympics. Before WTT Doha, I did a lot of practice matches with many other players. I think this format is good as it gives the feeling of competition, but at the same time I can get some training in. I hope I can continue to use this method to prepare for the Olympics.

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Analyzing Jeon Jihee’s Evolving Service Strategy Against Mima Ito

As a medal contender at the Tokyo Olympics, Jeon Jihee has a chance to make Korean Olympic table tennis history this summer. The most recent Olympic singles medals for South Korea are Kim Kyung-ah’s bronze medal in the 2004 women’s singles event and Ryu Seungmin’s famous gold medal in the 2004 men’s singles event. No woman from South Korea has ever reached the finals in the singles event. Similarly, the last time South Korea won a medal in the women’s team event was in 2008, and South Korea has never reached the finals in the team event.

Jeon Jihee has a puncher’s chance at accomplishing all of these things, but there is one player who consistently stands in her way to Olympic glory: Mima Ito.

Jeon’s Path To Olympic Glory

The Path to a Singles Medal

In the women’s singles event, there are roughly three tiers of medal contenders. In the first tier are the two yet-to-be-named Chinese women, who will be heavy favorites regardless of their seedings (although both will likely be top three seeds). In the second tier is second seed Mima Ito, who is quite widely acknowledged as the single most dominant threat to Chinese supremacy in the women’s events. In the third tier are seeds four through eight, which in order of projected Olympic seeding are Cheng I-Ching, Feng Tianwei, Kasumi Ishikawa, Jeon Jihee, and Doo Hoi Kem.

Let us first make the somewhat reasonable assumption that nobody in the third tier is able to pull off what would be a historically unprecedented upset against either of the Chinese women (although a historic upset is always possible and Jeon has beaten Chen Meng before in T2). Jeon’s viable path to an Olympic singles medal without having to defeat a Chinese player is as follows.

As a top-eight seed, Jeon is guaranteed not to play anybody higher ranked than her until at least the quarter-finals. In order for her to have the best chance to medal, she has to hope that she can avoid the Chinese players in the quarter-finals by drawing either Ito or the fourth seed. If Jeon is able to upset both the fourth seed and Mima Ito in some order, then she wins at least a bronze medal.

While it is unclear how the Olympic seeding rules work out this year, there is a chance that the two Chinese players may end up on the same half of the draw, in which case if Jeon defeats the fourth seed and Ito, then she will reach the Olympic finals.

The Path to Team Glory

With Jeon’s presence and the rise of teenager Shin Yubin, who notched impressive wins over Miu Hirano and Miyuu Kihara at WTT Doha and steamrolled the domestic competition at the Korean Olympic trials, Team Korea looks to be at the very least a bronze-medal contender and arguably the bronze-medal favorite in Tokyo. However, Korea appears to have loftier expectations.

In a press conference on March 15 (English translation on TTD), Korean table tennis legends Ryu Seungmin and Kim Taeksoo said that they believe that Korea has a solid chance at upsetting Japan and taking the silver medal (Kim also believes that only Japan can reasonably challenge China) at the Olympics. This is a bold proclamation as Japan’s lowest ranked player, Hirano, is higher ranked than Korea’s highest ranked player, Jeon. However, Korea has pointed to recent encouraging signs in their favor, particularly Shin’s win over Hirano and Shin/Jeon’s doubles win over Hirano/Ishikawa at WTT Doha.

Korea is likely closely monitoring the progress of Choi Hyojoo and Shin Yubin before making any final lineup decisions. However, from their remarks, Ryu and Kim seem to be signaling that Jeon and Shin will be playing the doubles match and that Shin will be playing singles against Hirano or Ishikawa. 

If that is the case, then Choi will play a singles match against Ito, who Choi came close to beating at the 2019 World Team Cup, and Japan’s choice of Hirano or Ishikawa, and Jeon will play Ito in a critical singles match should the two countries meet in the semi-finals.

Given that Jeon’s finals aspirations in both the team event and singles event likely run through Mima Ito, should Jeon spend the next few months hyper-focused on Ito similar to the way that China appears to be?

What are Jeon Jihee’s chances of pulling off the wins that she needs?

Jeon appears to have reasonable chances of upsetting the fourth seed in the women’s singles event (who will likely be Cheng I-Ching, Feng Tianwei, or Kasumi Ishikawa). Since 2018, Jeon is 4-3 against Cheng, 2-3 against Feng, and has not played Ishikawa in international competition. As we saw in WTT Doha, there is also a sizable chance that the fourth seed is not even able to make it to the quarter-finals.

On the other hand, we also saw in WTT Doha that Mima Ito appears to arguably be heads and shoulders above the rest of the non-Chinese competition, including Jeon. Since 2018, Jeon is 0-4 against Ito, including two 4-1 losses since the pandemic. Jeon will almost certainly walk into Tokyo as an underdog against Ito.

Although Jeon has had an underwhelming history against Ito over the last couple of years, their last two matches have been closer than the 4-1 scores may indicate. Out of the eight games that Jeon has lost to Ito in the last several months, three have been heart-breaking deuces.

First, at the 2020 World Cup last November, Jeon was up 10-7 and then failed to convert on four game points in a row to lose 13-11. Then at WTT Doha in March, Jeon lost a deuce 17-15 after Ito got a critical net ball at 15-15 in the second game. In the fifth game, Jeon was again up 10-7 lead and lost six game points in a row, resulting in a 15-13 loss.

Given the closeness of some of these games, even marginal targeted adjustments against Ito may be enough for Jeon to tilt the game more in her favor and pull off the upset in Tokyo.

The Story of Jeon Jihee’s Service Strategy Against Mima Ito

Mima Ito’s Domination on the Serve Return

One adjustment to her game that Jeon has already made and may continue to make against Ito is in the service. Shown below are the last four game points that Jeon failed to convert in game five against Ito at WTT Doha as well as the only match point that Ito needed to win the match.

Over the course of five consecutive critical service returns, Ito manages to receive every serve with the short pips on her backhand and does whatever she wants to them to create an advantage for herself on the next shot. She lands three chiquitas of varying side spin, a fast straight backhand flick, and a strawberry flick.

Why is Ito able to so freely create whatever she wants when receiving the short ball? Part of the reason may be that she does not fully respect the threat of Jeon’s long fast serve to the backhand, which allows Ito to fully focus on being creative with the short receive. Can we quantify how concerned Ito is about the long serve to the backhand and by extension how little attention she can devote to the receive on the short forehand corner?

One rough proxy is the number of times she receives a long fast serve with her forehand. When Ito receives too many long fast serves to the backhand and feels like she is unable to create an advantage on them, she tends to step around and open using her forehand. If Ito has to plan to open her stance for a forehand loop and additionally move left if she’s stepping around, then in principle it should become more difficult for her to move into the table to the short forehand corner to receive a serve with the pips on her backhand.

In Ito’s 4-3 win against Hina Hayata at the All Japan National Championships in January, Ito attempted to receive 13 long serves with her forehand (note this number also includes Hayata’s long serves to Ito’s forehand). In her 4-2 win against Hayata at WTT Doha, that number was 16. In her 4-3 loss to Kasumi Ishikawa at the All Japan National Championships, that number was 5. What about in her 4-1 win over Jeon Jihee at the World Cup last November? Zero.

Jeon raised that number to three in Doha. Let us take a look at the adjustment she made to cause this change, and whether she should further adapt her service game specifically for Mima Ito like other top lefties appear to do.

How Other Left-Handed Stars Serve Against Mima Ito

Jeon may have already started to adapt her service pattern to be more in line with several other left-handed players who are strongly motivated to optimize their games against Ito: Hina Hayata, Kasumi Ishikawa, and Ding Ning. Hayata and Ishikawa should be deeply familiar with Ito since they compete with her for domestic as well as international titles. Ding Ning, along with the rest of China, is likely also hyper-focused on Ito as she is the single biggest threat to Chinese supremacy.

We show selected points in some of their matches against Ito in the past year. Note that these are all very important points in the match. For Hayata and Ishikawa, these are their last few serves in a seven-game thriller. For Ding, these are her last three serves in a 14-12 win during a pivotal third game.

Several things stand out. First, all three of them are willing to challenge Ito on the long serve, even if it means letting Ito step around for a forehand opening. Second, Ito doesn’t do anything too fancy against them when they do serve short. Third, when serving they all stand inside close to the middle of the table (as opposed to the more common position of standing behind the corner), which appears to give them the flexibility to execute serves short to the wide forehand or long to the wide backhand.

Hayata and Ding can go full games serving entirely behind the corner, even at 9-9, but they do serve from inside the table throughout the match, and it says something that when they need points the most, they opt to serve from inside the table. Moreover, while Hayata likes to serve from inside the table against everyone, Ding and Ishikawa are quite clearly serving more often from inside the table specifically because they are playing Ito.

To get a rough idea of how heavily Ishikawa changed her service game for Ito in the All Japan National Championships, consider the following numbers. In Ishikawa’s 4-3 win over Ito in the finals, Ishikawa served from inside the table 85 percent of the time. However, in her 4-2 win over Miyuu Kihara in the semi-finals, Ishikawa served from inside the table only 21 percent of the time.

In Jeon’s loss to Ito at the World Cup, Jeon didn’t serve from the inside the table even once. This is in line with her and Ding Ning’s typical service pattern: almost always serve from behind the corner and possibly break out a different serve from inside the table to introduce some surprises during critical points.

However, at least Ding and Ishikawa have both apparently decided that such a service pattern is sub-optimal against Mima Ito. Jeon seems to have arrived at a similar conclusion as she heavily integrated more serves from inside the table at WTT Doha.

How Jeon Jihee Changed Her Serves At WTT Doha

Jeon Jihee notably started serving from inside the table against Mima Ito at WTT Doha in the second halves of Games 2, 3, and 5 after never doing so in the World Cup (she did, however, serve at least once from the center of the table in her 3-1 loss to Ito at T2 in 2019).

We caught glimpses of the potential advantages of using this serve. In the clip below, we see Jeon take a pair of points at 9-9 in the third game off two fast long serves to the backhand. Ito can only give a standard backhand flick return that is not particularly fast due to the short pips, which Jeon can take advantage of.

However, this serve is not a silver bullet to cure all of Jeon’s woes against Ito. Due to a combination of Ito’s brilliance and Jeon’s possible lack of familiarity with her own serve, some of Ito’s returns against this serve seemed to really catch Jeon by surprise. Jeon also may have signaled more information than she would like with her service stance; she was far more likely to serve fast and long to the backhand when standing inside the table. She can remedy this by serving to the short forehand from inside the table more often.

Jeon also almost certainly feels more comfortable with her usual serve from behind the corner. While she can surely execute her serve from inside the table perfectly during training, can she do it repeatedly when the pressure is on?

As seen in the first video clip in this post, to close out the match Jeon reverted to her normal serve from behind the corner even though Ito was having her way with them. Was this a tactical decision or was it because Jeon lost confidence in her ability to execute the serve well? Jeon did serve a long fast serve to the backhand from inside the table at 12-11, but Ito seemed to easily take advantage of it since the serve was predictable and/or not executed well.

It remains to be seen whether Jeon further integrates this serve into her matches against Ito in the future. At Doha, she only used this serve in the second half of a game and only if the score was within two or three points. This is roughly on par with (although possibly slightly less than) how often Hayata and Ding use this serve against Ito. Does Jeon want to fully adapt Ishikawa’s strategy in All Japan and essentially make this her default serve?

How Much Does Jeon Jihee Want Mima Ito To Step Around?

Counting the number of times Mima Ito receives a long serve with the forehand is always an interesting exercise. As mentioned earlier, the upside of Ito stepping around is that it means she can devote less attention to the short forehand corner. The downside is that it allows her to open with an aggressive shot.

However, a step around forehand from Ito may not be as scary as it sounds. Sure, if Ito knows exactly where the ball is going and has time to prepare, she can pretty much score an immediate winner with a fast wide smash to either corner. However, when she is on the move, not completely in position, and hitting it from a wide angle on her backhand corner, it is extremely difficult to go hard straight down the line to the left-handed server’s backhand.

The points shown below are quite illustrative of the risks and rewards of Mima Ito stepping around for the forehand opening on the serve return.

In the first point, Ito is only able to make a soft and somewhat predictable cross-court shot to Jeon’s forehand, and Jeon lands the strong counter-loop. In the second point, Ishikawa is waiting for the forehand counter, but Ito manages to get in position and land a smash to her elbow for the instant kill. In the third point, Ito prepares to step around, but Ishikawa serves short to the forehand, so Ito can only push with the forehand. Ishikawa loses the point, but she gets a desirable serve return from Ito.

No set formula exists for how often the opponent should want Ito to step around and take the forehand serve return opening. Even Ito probably does not know the optimal number. Hayata, Ding, Ishikawa, and Jeon (listed in order of willingness to challenge Ito’s long opening attack) have all tried various service strategies with varying degrees of success.

So far Ding has had the most success against Ito, but that can also be heavily attributed to the fact that she is Ding Ning. Meanwhile, Jeon has so far been the most conservative with the worst results (granted there are many other factors that account for her results), and it remains to be seen whether she will further adapt her strategy going forward.

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and follow Edges and Nets on Facebook , Instagram, and Twitter to stay updated.

Unfortunately, ITTF has killed ITTV, meaning that past matches are no longer publicly available to watch. Hence, no blog posts are scheduled for the immediate future. You can check out past analysis posts here.

How Mima Ito Defeated Hina Hayata At WTT Doha: A Statistical Analysis Revisited

Not the post you were looking for? A guide to all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha (also known as WTT Middle East Hub and formerly known as ITTF Qatar Open) can be found here.

Mima Ito defeated Hina Hayata in the finals 4-2 to win the WTT Contender title at WTT Doha. Before the finals started, Edges and Nets wrote a preview that incorporated rudimentary statistical analysis to verify and draw further insights regarding some of our qualitative observations of Ito and Hayata’s match-up at the All Japan National Championships in January.

In this post we revisit the trends we observed in our preview and discuss whether these trends continued to hold in the WTT Contender finals. For a (non-statistical) summary of the finals, please read our recap here. The statistical trends in this match turned out to vary wildly from the All Japan National Championships match. Although this disparity can be partially attributed to uninformative noise present in small sample sizes, we believe that it also partially reflects the dynamic nature of table tennis and how adjustments between matches and even games can wildly swing the nature of a match.

Disentangling these two factors of variation (statistical noise and change in strategy) is an open problem that Edges and Nets is actively exploring. Any suggestions or feedback is welcome.

Ito Dominates On The Third Ball

In our previous post, we noted that Ito had a massive edge in the long rallies, winning a staggering 71% of rallies in which she attempted four or more shots including all six rallies where she attempted five or more shots in the All Japan National Championships match.

Although Ito’s share of total points won rose from 48% to 54%, this time around, Ito only won fifty percent of the long rallies. However, we believe that this discrepancy from Japan can be mainly attributed to the tiny sample size. The number of long rallies dropped by a fair amount; in Japan 14% of the points (for a total of 17 long points) were long rallies and in Qatar that number dropped to 9% (for a total of 10 long points). Hence, if just one or two points had swung the other way (and a couple of the “long rallies” had a fair amount of pushing), the numbers would look more consistent with their Japan match-up.

Unless Hayata suddenly got better at long rallies or Ito suddenly got worse (which is possible if she had a bad night of sleep or something), it is likely that the odds of Ito’s winning a long rally will have stayed relatively similar between January and now. Combining the results of the two recent match-ups, Ito has won 63% of her 27 long rallies against Hayata over the last two months. Our sample size is still quite small and this number may change even more in the future; however, we still feel that Mima Ito is a stronger player in the rallies from watching them play, and physically her lower body looks quite clearly stronger than Hayata’s.

While the change in percentage of long points won by Ito can be attributed to noise and it is possible that the drop in the number of long rallies can as well, we believe that the drop in number of long rallies is due to change in tactics by the players. First, the sample size is larger and thus more robust as the match had 113 points in total. Second, the number of 5-shot, 4-shot, 3-shot, and 2-shot points all decreased and the average rally length (as measured in Mima Ito shot attempts) dropped from 2.3 to 2. As a result the percentage of “one-shot” points that ended in serve, serve return, or third-ball winner by either player rose from 41% to 50%.

Although we previously stated that it may be in Hayata’s interests to lower the length of the rallies, when watching the match it actually felt like Ito was the main one responsible for shortening the rallies as she attempted difficult and aggressive shots with wide angles. This may be reflected in the change in percentage of “one-shot” points won by each player: in their previous match-up in Japan, Ito only won 47% of such points; this time that number jumped to 59%, indicating that she benefited from the shortened points.

Hayata’s Long Serve Management

In an interesting twist, Ito only won 48% of the points in which she served but Hayata only won 40%(!) of the points in which she served. We are not sure what caused this counter-intuitive result.

In our previous post we speculated that Hayata would consider serving more long serves since she actually performed better on her long serves compared to her short serves. It appears Hayata agreed as her percentage of long serves rose from one third to 46%. Her long serves, of which she won 42%, performed slightly better (albeit within the margin of statistical error) than her short serves, of which she only won 39%. Hence, although our judgement must be taken with a massive grain of salt due to small sample size, it appears that Hayata made the correct choice by serving long more often.

We raised the question if it was beneficial for Ito to step around and take Hayata’s serves with her forehand. Ito took 61% (16 out of 26) of Hayata’s long serves with her forehand and won 56% of those point. In comparison, she won six out of the ten long serves she received with her backhand. Hence, with our limited amount of data there is still no evidence that taking the long serve with her forehand or backhand is better.

Did Hayata choke?

We now present a possible explanation for Hayata’s poor performance on her own serve. Did Hayata choke? Meaning, did Hayata play worse than normal because she was nervous? Serves are one of the first things to degrade in quality when a player gets nervous, and she had more than enough reason to be nervous. Although Hayata has played on the big stage before such as in her 2020 All Japan National Championship title run, to the best of our knowledge this is the closest she has ever gotten to winning a major international event.

We know that body-language reading is mostly pseudo-science, but we are going to call upon our resident body language expert anyway to analyze the following clip. This is at the end of game 4 after Ito had narrowed the lead from 10-7 to 10-9 and then called a “covid time-out” where she asked the umpire to wipe the table. Hayata’s face looks frozen in fear and she is completely stiff while Mima Ito is jumping around when the camera pans out (note that Hayata would call time-out and go on to win the game 11-9). This is completely different from when Ito called a covid time-out at 5-3 in the same game (not shown), during which Hayata was also jumping around and keeping herself loose.

Of course, body-language and facial-expression reading is a completely subjective exercise that largely confirms everyone’s own beliefs, and in our recap we already came to the conclusion that Ito was more clutch than Hayata in game 5. It will be interesting to see if we can find a method to quantify clutchness or other soft skills like anticipation. This is largely an open problem across all sports, but we would argue it is particularly important in table tennis, where even a slight change in timing can completely ruin someone’s game.

At the moment, due to the small sample size and the fact that this is a completely new exercise for us, interpreting the limited data appears to be somewhat akin to reading tea leaves, but we hope that the statistics shared in this post provided some additional insight to Mima Ito’s finals victory over Hina Hayata at WTT Contender. Although some people prefer watching many different match-ups, here’s to hoping for another Ito vs Hayata finals in WTT Star Contender so we can do another round of this type of analysis.

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Mima Ito Wins WTT Doha Event With 4-2 Finals Win Over Hina Hayata

Not the post you were looking for? A guide to all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha (also known as WTT Middle East Hub and formerly known as ITTF Qatar Open) can be found here.

For more coverage of the WTT Contender women’s singles finals, check out our preview and our post-game analysis.

Tied 2-2 in games, Mima Ito (WR 3) and Hina Hayata (WR 29) both reached into their bag of tricks as Ito eked out a gutsy 11-9 win in a pivotal game 5 en route to a 11-9, 11-8, 6-11, 9-11, 11-9, 11-6 finals victory over Hayata. With the win Ito, has captured the first ever World Table Tennis (i.e. rebranded ITTF) Title in the WTT Contender Event at WTT Doha. The qualification draw of WTT Star Contender, the second and more prestigious event at WTT Doha, is already underway and will be ongoing throughout the week.

The victory is slightly dimmed due to the withdrawal of Sun Yingsha and Liu Shiwen and general lack of star-power among Ito’s opponents (none of her opponents were in the top 20 although Hayata likely deserves to be in it). However, Ito was still able to make a small statement; while all the other top seeds in the event were getting upset left and right, Ito was able to stay steady take care of business. If everyone has similar showings in WTT Star Contender event, Ito can make the case for why she is arguably the ONLY serious threat to Chinese supremacy at the Tokyo Olympics.

Game 1

Ito opened the match very aggressively, which initially cost her as she missed several aggressive forehand smashes to go down 7-3. However, her shots suddenly started landing and went on a 8-2 run to take the game 11-9. Save for a net ball when down 7-4 (which itself was in the middle of an offensive rally), all of Ito’s last eight points were won off of aggressive wide openings or ambitious forehand smashes. Both the points she lost were a result of her missing her own forehand smash.

Game 2

Ito’s aggressive style carried into game 2, but thanks to a couple early service and return errors and a missed smash, Hayata was able to open up an early 5-3 lead that could have been larger if not for a couple of her own easier backhand errors.

Ito then won four points in a row to take a 7-5 lead. Two of these points followed the same strategy of allowing Hayata to open with her backhand against a short ball to the center and then smashing the ball back hard for the winner after anticipating its location.

Ito would use the same play again at 8-7 to maintain a 9-7 lead. Ito then surprised Hayata with a short push; Hayata rushed when stepping in and flicked the ball into the net, giving Ito three game points at 10-7. Ito missed a forehand smash to cut it to 10-8, but Hayata then missed a forehand flick on the serve return to lose the game 11-8.

Game 3

Similar to game 1, Ito continued to be aggressive and go for hard and wide forehand smashes, but missed several of them. Hayata also added some extra twists to her short game including a half-long push at 3-2 and a surprise forehand flick at 6-3 that, combined with Ito’s errors, were enough for Hayata to go up 9-3.

Ito was able to win two points on her own serve to cut it to 9-5. Hayata then served long to Ito’s elbow but missed the block when Ito stepped around to smash it to her backhand. On the very next point, Hayata trusted her long serve and anticipation again as she served a long serve again to Ito’s elbow, but this time a little further to the backhand, and when Ito stepped around and hit it to Hayata’s backhand, Hayata was ready for a wide block to Ito’s forehand for the winner.

Ito was able to catch Hayata with a long serve on the next point, but Hayata’s surprised return carried some weird spin and neither player seemed to know what was on the ball for a couple shots before Ito went for the smash and hit it out the table, giving game 3 to Hayata 11-6.

Game 4

Hayata showed some great anticipation and killed several of Ito’s openings as she built a 6-3 lead. However, Hayata then missed her own serve, lost a weird point after a net ball, and then lost a great rally to level it at 6-6. However, Hayata was unfazed as she continued to show great anticipation and smack down many of Ito’s openings and fool Ito with her long serves to cruise to an 10-7 lead.

However, a winning serve return from Ito and a missed serve return by Hayata cut the lead to 10-9. Ito calmly asked for her second “covid timeout” of a game (i.e. where a player effectively gets an extra mini-break by asking the umpire to “wipe down” the table), and what appeared to be a rattled Hayata then called a real timeout.

Hayata then opened with a chiquita to Ito’s wide backhand and then hit a hard wide backhand winner against the soft return to take the game 11-9.

Game 5

Neither player was able to take control the pace of the game like Ito in games 1 and 2 or Hayata in games 3 and 4. Ito had the slight edge in rallies, allowing her to build 8-6 lead. It was around at this point that both players appeared to bust out their bags of tricks.

Hayata won a point off a tricky half-long serve, and Ito took the next point with a short, high, and very strange chop block that Hayata hit into the net. Hayata then won the next point with a strawberry flick to cut the lead to 9-8. Each player then won a point off the third ball following great anticipation, resulting in a 10-9 lead for Ito with Hayata to serve. Ito then opted for a short push instead of the backhand flick that Hayata was expecting on the serve return, and Hayata missed the following push as Ito eked out a clutch 11-9 win in a pivotal game 5.

Game 6

Game 6 got off to a strange start. Hayata first won a beautiful rally before missing her own serve to level it at 1-1. Ito then caught a net ball and a pretty wide block to take a 3-1 lead. Hayata then proceeded to serve long on all four of her next four serves and lost all four points. However, Ito returned the favor by losing four straight of her own serves, including a missed serve.

Hayata was able to get narrow the lead one more point to 7-6 with a deep push to Ito’s backhand before dropping the next point to g o down 8-6. Hayta then missed a serve return and then lost the next point after Ito got a net ball, giving Ito quadruple match point at 10-6. Hayata’s shoulders slumped in frustration, and although it looked like she had gathered herself together for the next point, her serve was a bit high, and Ito killed the serve with a wide punch to Hayata’s forehand.

This sequence capped off a 5-0 streak for Ito in what was otherwise a close and unpredictable game. She thus took the match 4-2, and with it, the first ever WTT title (WTT Macau does not count because the rules were a complete gimmick).

Notes

On the men’s singles side, Dimitrij Ovtcharov captured the title with a 4-1 win over Lin Yun-Ju.

Ito missed three of her own serves and Hayata missed two. It’s unclear why whether the large number of missed serves was due to nervousness, rustiness, or a change in routine due to covid restrictions (e.g. no touching the table).

Either Ito sweats a lot or she really likes making use of the so-called covid timeout.

Edges and Net previously released a rudimentary statistical analysis of the Hayata vs Ito match-up. We will shortly follow up on how these trends held at WTT Doha in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!

The outfits this time were significantly better than whatever they were wearing at the All Japan National Championships in January, which can be seen in our Instagram post below. Between these National Championship outfits and Harimoto’s tendency to dress like a fruit with his monochromatic color schemes, Edges and Nets is not a huge fan of Team Japan’s fashion choice.

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Mima Ito vs Hina Hayata Finals Preview: A Statistical Approach

Not the post you were looking for? A guide to all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha (also known as WTT Middle East Hub and formerly known as ITTF Qatar Open) can be found here.

Mima Ito and Hina Hayata will be facing off in the finals of WTT Contender at WTT Doha shortly. To get ready for the finals match-up, Edges and Nets re-watched their seven game thriller at the All Japan National Championships this January.

We took a new approach of first qualitatively looking for trends and then performing a brief quantitative analysis to confirm our intuition based on manually labeled data. The game went a full seven games for a total of 129 points, giving us a decent sample size. Overall, Ito won 48% of the points despite winning 4-3; this is because she lost a couple games by a wide margin and won all her own games narrowly.

We present two conclusions below. The first conclusion we verify is pretty obvious from watching the tape, but the second insight may be non-obvious without actually looking at the numbers. Although the analysis is primitive, we hope that this post provides a glimpse of a future with more automatically labeled data, from which we may be able to quickly draw further insights from particular match-ups without having to watch too much film.

Longer Rallies Favor Mima Ito

One trend that jumps out when you watch the National Championships matches is that Hina Hayata commonly wins points by exploiting Ito’s height and putting Ito out of position within the first shot or two, and then finishing the point one shot later. However, once Ito is able to get in position in the rally, she is able to return pretty much anything Hayata throws at her.

Ito can handle longer rallies against Hayata very well. Source

To verify this idea, we manually labeled the shot-length and the winner of each rally. Shot length was measured by the number of shots Mima Ito attempted to make (e.g. if Ito misses her third-ball attack or wins the point on her third-ball attack, it is considered a 2-shot rally either way). The reason we count shot attempts and not made is that Ito makes an extra shot when she wins a point, thus biasing the results if we count made shots.

Due to limited sample size, we do not want to perform too fine grained analysis, we divide points into “short” points in which Ito attempted 3 or fewer shots (i.e. the total rally was at most five or six shots depending on who served) and “long” points in which Ito attempted 4 or more shots (i.e. the rallly was at least six or seven shots depending on who served).

87% of the points were considered short points, which makes sense since a lot of table tennis is executing your service and service returns well. In other words, on average there were two and a half long rallies each game. This can absolutely swing the match, as Ito won two games 11-9 and two games 11-8.

Ito only won 44% of the short points, but won a staggering 71% of long points, including all six rallies in which Ito attempted five or more shots. Obviously there is some noise due to small sample size and potential unknown source of bias in our approach, but the results are quite stark.

We thus highlight the importance it is for Hayata to be able to finish the point quickly, although that is obviously easier said than done.

How Should Hayata Manage Her Long Serves?

One of the key challenges in playing Mima Ito is managing long serves. Probably the worst serve one can make when playing Mima Ito is a short serve to her backhand, as that gives her free reign to do whatever combination of banana and strawberry flicks and short and deep pushes that she likes with her short pips. As a result, opponents typically avoid essentially completely avoiding this serve.

The two good serves to Ito are the short serve to the forehand, which prevents her from getting creative with the short pips without getting slightly out of position, and the long serve to the backhand, which forces her to give a predictable and softer return. However, the long serve carries risk, since when Ito anticipates it coming, she can step around for a hard forehand opening against the long serve. Serve too many times long to the backhand, and one may end up simply asking to be killed by her forehand.

It is not obvious just from watching the film which serve is more effective, and it likely varies by match-up and the opponent’s ability to execute each serve. However, we can draw some insight for Hayata by performing quantitative analysis on Hayata’s last match with Ito.

Ito won 52% of the points on her own serve and 44% of the points on serve return, which sounds about reasonable. Hayata served long on roughly one third of her serves, and we can assume that the remaining two-thirds were short and to Ito’s forehand.

The sample size is small as our splits are quite fine-grained, but the results are somewhat interesting. Hayata won 55% of the points in which she served short and to the forehand. On the other hand, she won 60% of the points in which she served long. At least in the previous match, it appears that serving long yielded better results for Hayata than serving short.

It may seem that Hayata should be serving long more often, but we have to consider that the more Hayata uses them then the more Ito will start stepping around, which would decrease the efficacy of the long serve to the backhand but increase the efficacy of the short serve to the forehand.

When looking at the splits between when Ito received the long serve with her forehand or her backhand, this tradeoff appears to emerge: Hayata won seven out of thirteen (54%) of the points that Ito took with her forehand but six out of the nine (67%) points that Ito returned with her backhand.

However, the sample size is tiny, so we cannot draw any strong statistical conclusions; all it would take is one edge ball from Ito to make the efficacy of a serve to the backhand to only be 55%. If the results do hold on larger data, it matches our intuition (and apparently Ito’s since she keeps stepping around) that Ito returns the long serve better with her forehand. If that is the case, left-handed opponents like Hayata may want to consider serving more often from the center of the table in order to land the wide serve to Ito’s backhand.

On the flip side, if after analyzing more data it appears that taking the serve with the forehand and backhand yield similar results, Ito may want to consider if she wants to step around less often, which would presumably allow her to focus more on the short forehand return. That would be a surprising and counter-intuitive result for many including Edges and Nets, but we have seen large-scale quantitative analysis upend common intuition in various other sports.

The data used in the analysis of this post was both primitive and small in scale, but we hope some of the conclusions that we drew offer a glimpse of what can happen in the future given enough well-labeled data. The length of rally, length of serve, and whether a player used forehand or backhand should actually all be pretty easily trackable based on modern AI techniques, and it will be exciting to see what the future holds for quantitative analysis in table tennis.

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Unless stated otherwise, all images and footage in this post can respectively be found on ITTF’s Flickr page and ITTF’s Youtube Channel.

Winners and Losers of China’s Withdrawal From WTT Doha

This post is the sixth post in a series of posts previewing the 2021 World Table Tennis (WTT) Middle East Hub (also known as the Qatar Open or WTT Doha) coming March 3-13. Our previous post covered seeds 4 and 4 Liu Shiwen (who after the post was published has withdrawn) and Cheng I-Ching. A summary of all of Edges and Nets’ coverage of WTT Doha can be found here.

By far the biggest storyline hanging over WTT Doha will be China’s last-minute withdrawal from the event and all future international events between now and the Tokyo Olympics due to coronavirus concerns. This does not necessarily mean we will not see the Chinese players in action before Tokyo as the China Open may still happen.

We take a look (mainly from a seeding perspective) at who benefits and who suffers from the sudden withdrawal.

Winner: Mima Ito

Barring an epic collapse in the first few rounds of both events, with Sun Yingsha not able to gain ranking points from WTT Doha, Mima Ito will be world ranked number two after the completion of WTT Doha and in full control of the second seed at the Tokyo Olympics. Assuming ITTF continues its current drawing system of treating the third and fourth seed as equals, that would give Ito a 50 percent chance that the two Chinese players meet in the semi-finals, meaning Ito has a clear path to the Olympic finals without having to beat a Chinese star.

That being said, even if Ito does not need to play a Chinese player on the way to the finals in the Olympics, she still needs to take care of business against the likes of Cheng I-Ching and Kasumi Ishikawa, who recently beat Ito at the Japan National Championships. We will see in WTT Doha whether she is ready to take advantage of the golden opportunity that the withdrawal has presented her.

Winner: Hugo Calderano

Barring a major collapse from Tomokazu Harimoto or an epic run from Mattias Falck, which although unlikely are both possibilities, there is effectively a two-way race between Calderano and Lin Yun-Ju (who along with Dimitrij Ovtcharov are actually club teammates now that Calderano has joined Fakel Gazprom Orenburg) for the fourth seed at the Tokyo Olympics. The fourth seed is incredibly valuable as it ensures that one does not have to play either of the two Chinese stars until at least the semi-finals, so there is a path to an Olympic medal without beating a Chinese player.

The two are so close on the world rankings, that essentially whoever performs better at WTT Doha will be in position for the fourth seed (Calderano keeps the fourth seed if they perform exactly the same at WTT Doha).

Before Xu Xin withdrew from the event, Calderano and Lin entered WTT Doha on equal footing as third and fourth seeds. However, now that Xu Xin is out, Calderano has been upgraded to the second seed. This means that (assuming no upsets happen), Calderano’s semi-final will either be Lin or Mattias Falck while Lin’s semi-final will either be wth Calderano or Harimoto.

If Lin and Calderano play each other in the semi-finals, such a match-up would likely be a play-in for the fourth seed at the Tokyo Olympics. In such a situation, Calderano doesn’t benefit that much from Xu Xin’s withdrawal, as both Lin and Calderano would control their own destiny. Where Calderano would have an advantage would be if he plays Falck and Lin plays Harimoto, as many would consider Harimoto to be the more difficult opponent.

Although Lin and Calderano are club teammates, it is unclear how much familiarity they have with each other’s games. Based on their recent social media behavior, it seems that Calderano is still training Germany while Lin has been training in China over the last few months.

Losers: Sun Yingsha and Lin Yun-Ju

Ito’s and Calderano’s improved Olympic seeding prospects come at the expense of Sun Yingsha and Lin Yun-Ju. For Lin, it is not a huge disadvantage since it is just a slight change-up in the draws, and Lin should feel confident in his abilities to beat Harimoto anyway.

However, Sun’s inevitable fall to third in the world rankings really hurts her. First, if she plays the Olympic singles, there is a chance that she will have to play another Chinese player in the semi-finals. Even worse, one of Sun’s advantages in the Olympic selection process was that she was higher ranked than Ito and that selecting Sun and Chen Meng would thus ensure that China would hold the top two seeds. However, from an Olympics seeding perspective, Sun now carries no advantage over the likes of Ding Ning, Zhu Yuling, and Wang Manyu.

Winner: Kasumi Ishikawa

Ishikawa needs to do better than Cheng I-Ching in both the WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender event to pass her in the world rankings and put herself in position to take the fourth seed. This previously would have been an extremely difficult task as it likely would have involved beating two players out of Cheng, Ito, Liu Shiwen, or Sun Yingsha in the quarter-finals of each event without losing.

However, without Sun and Liu in the mix, Ishikawa is now a top four seed at WTT Doha. This means that if Ishikawa plays to her seeding, she will reach the semi-finals, where she can either face Cheng for what would almost be a play-in match for the Olympic fourth seed or face Ito, who she recently beat at the Japan National Championships in January. A win against Ito would send Ishikawa to the finals, in which case Ishikawa will have either already outperformed Cheng or will have the chance to outperform Cheng by beating her in the finals for what would also almost be a play-in match for the Olympic fourth seed. Thus, Ishikawa’s chances of stealing the Olympic fourth seed from Cheng have gone way up.

While Ishikawa gets a huge boost from the absence of Liu and Sun, things are also still looking solid for Cheng I-Ching. Cheng still completely fully controls her own seeding destiny and can widen the gap between her and Ishikawa with a pair of wins in the semi-finals/finals over Ishikawa in both WTT Contender and WTT Star Contender.

Loser: Liu Shiwen

After not getting to see Liu Shiwen in the Fall of 2020 due to her injury, fans will need to wait even longer to see Liu Shiwen in action. This prolonged absence will really hurt Liu in the world rankings as a good performance from Kasumi Ishikawa could drop Liu to number 9 in the world, which would put her as a fifth seed in the Olympic women’s singles behind Ito, Ishikawa, Cheng I-Ching, and the other Chinese player.

If Liu does not get the chance to pass Ishikawa again in the China Open, it is hard to see China selecting her to play at the women’s singles event. Such a low-seeded Chinese player at the Olympics would be unprecedented, and China could end up with a quarter-final China vs China match-up on their hands if that were to happen. That would give China a maximum of one medal, a result they almost certainly want to avoid.

Furthermore, Liu has lost her two most recent matches with Mima Ito. Granted they were in 2018, but coaches would likely want to see how she plays against Ito before selecting her for the Olympic team. Without the chance to prove her case at WTT Doha, Liu Shiwen’s Olympic hopes may now almost completely hinge on her performance at the China Open (which may or may not happen).

If you liked this article, please follow Edges and Nets on Facebook or Instagram to stay updated.

Unless stated otherwise, all images and footage in this post can respectively be found on ITTF’s Flickr page and the ITTV channel.